On the Road in Search of Jack

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Monday, January 7
by David Amram

Putnam Valley, New York | In 1956 Jack Kerouac and I first met at a bring-your-own-bottle party at a painter's loft and instantly began collaborating artistically. I backed him up musically while he read and from the earliest days of our working together I knew that he was an exceptional storyteller and writer. The spontaneous energy that poured out of him reminded me of what it was like when I played with Charles Mingus or Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonius Monk. Jack's way of reading was the embodiment of the spirit of jazz. He combined formality and spontaneity in a seemingly effortless way. As a young classical composer, as well as a jazz musician, I, as well, wanted my compositions to sound as natural as if I were making them up on the spot. Jack told me that this was what he was trying to do when he wrote his narrative novels. "I want the reader to feel like I'm talking directly to them," he said. We became friends.

Early in 1957, after sitting in with my quartet at the Five Spot, Jack told me that his Road Book, as he called it, was going to be published and that he was taking a freighter to Tangiers in a few days to get away. "I hope your book does okay," I said to him. "It doesn't matter," Jack replied. "At least it's getting published after seven years." That fall On the Road came out and it did more than okay, captivating readers and giving a name to Jack, as well as the entire community of artists with whom he spent time and sometimes worked with, including me.

During this last year, I have traveled America, as well as the globe in major celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Jack's great book. Sometimes I appear conducting my symphonic works inspired by his life and writings. On other occasions, I play spontaneously without any rehearsal with jazz musicians, accompanying readings of Jack's words with music as I did with him in 1957 at the first jazz/poetry readings ever given in New York City. Often, I introduce and screen the silent film Pull My Daisy, for which Jack provided the narration and I provided the score.

And every time I do an event, which celebrates Jack and his work, I see the enthusiasm in the faces of the young people who come to meet me clutching their copies of On The Road and asking over and over the same question, "what was it like, what was it like to be in New York in that time and to know Jack Kerouac, to be in that scene?" And I think of Jack's Road Book and that night he first told me about it all those years ago. I tell them, "If you want to know what it was like to know Jack Kerouac then all you have to do is read On The Road. If you want to what it was like to know Jack Kerouac you need no other thing."

This blog is bring written by Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D and David Amram during the third and final run of Sprenger's cross-country sociology and documentary-making course "Jack Kerouac Wrote Here, Crisscrossing America Chasing Cool." The next entries by Sprenger and Amram will appear January 11, 15, 19. 23, 27, and 31, along with an "audio ethnography" produced by students participating in this course on February 4. Readers are also to join Sprenger and Amram for a FREE Retrospective of the 50th Anniversary of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" in New York on Friday, January 11 at 8pm at the Theater For the New City and Sunday, February 24 at 2 pm in the B2 Conference Center of the Denver Public Library. Audrey Sprenger, Ph.D is an ethnographer, audio producer and professor of sociology. The author of the true-life novel/community study Home Goings, she creates artistic and educational programming for the Denver Public Library. David Amram is an internationally acclaimed composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and author. His most recent orchestral work, "Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie" made its world premiere in San Jose, California this past September and his third book, Upbeat: Nine Lives of a Musical Cat was published a month later. Today is the first of a seven-day diary they are collaborating on together about the life, times and 50th anniversary of On the Road, Jack Kerouac's second novel.


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